E.O. Wilson calls iPad textbooks ‘a miracle’

Apple’s education event in New York on Thursday revealed the company’s plans to change the way textbooks are used by students in both K-12 and college environments using iPads. But is Apple overstepping its bounds? iPads in schools are still the exception, not the rule. Apple thinks the iPad offers a compelling enough learning opportunity to overcome bureaucratic adoption hurdles.

The introduction of iBooks 2 and iTunes U – now an app – and a new Mac app called iBooks Author provides new opportunities for textbook publishers, teachers, parents and students that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

A strong foothold

During his presentation in the Guggenheim Museum’s Peter B. Lewis theater, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, articulated Apple’s vision, built around student engagement and new learning techniques involving the iPad.

Schiller noted that 1.5 million iPads are in use in schools nationwide, with more than 1,000 “one-to-one” programs. That’s a good start, but with an estimated 64 million children in elementary and high schools, there’s a long way to go before every child in the US has an iPad device – assuming that’s even a realistic goal. After all, the United States is still in the midst of a serious recession, and public school systems are struggling for money.

Talking to The Loop after the event, Schiller underscored the benefits of young students using iPads – better portability than lugging around hardcover textbooks; interactivity; able to have its content updated without needing to be replaced all together.

There’s a significant up front cost for school districts to deal with, of course – iPads retail for $500, while textbooks cost a fraction of that. Schiller doesn’t see the cost as the biggest impediment for public schools to deal with, factoring in the cost of replacing textbooks compounded with the efforts that many are making to equip students with computer systems already.

Schiller’s also pleased with publisher uptake of iBooks Author and iBooks 2. With McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson on board, Apple’s established deals with publishers responsible for 90 percent of the textbooks sold in the United States.

“Between Pearson and McGraw Hill, the textbooks in the iBookstore are used by seven million students nationwide,” Schiller said.

That’s a very strong foothold for Apple, and it’s bound to expand.

An old multimedia partner back again

Apple users who remember the advent of the CD-ROM era may also recognize Dorling Kindersley’s name – the company was in the vanguard of the effort to put interactive educational material on CD-ROM. DK Publishing is one of Apple’s featured partners in this new effort. They launched four new books on Thursday for kids with varying interests – Dinosaurs, Insects, Mammals and My First ABCs.

John Duhigg, deputy CEO of DK, explained that getting his company’s books on iPads was a natural and easy fit. “It was just a matter of reflowing and reworking content,” he explained.

iBooks Author made it simple for DK’s book creators to redesign the existing content they’d already developed for their physical books into virtual form for the iPad, with embellishments and enhancements to suit the medium.

“Instead of having a flat 2D skeleton of a dinosaur on a page, now we’ve got a 3D model you can view,” Duhigg said. The DK books on iPad feature animations, movies, sounds and other content to help draw readers into a more immersive, interactive environment.

Duhigg also told The Loop that a fifth title, a baking cookbook, is in the works for a release next month, and suggested that more will be coming soon.

E.O. Wilson’s “Miracle”

E.O. Wilson – the famed biologist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor – was showcased during Apple’s formal presentation. Wilson’s Biodiversity Foundation is working with Apple to create a digital textbook called “Life on Earth,” and it’s an ambitious 59 chapter creation that Schiller described as “an attempt to recreate the biology textbook.”

The first two chapters of “Life on Earth” are available for free download from the iBookstore already, and Schiller said that more will be coming soon for an “aggressive” price. Given that Apple’s capped iBookstore textbooks at $14.99, it’ll be interesting to see how aggressive Wilson’s effort can be.

The early results are intriguing. While Pearson’s biology textbook is, by and large, a digital version of its print counterpart with a few enhancements, “Life on Earth” is something else entirely – opening it reveals a video narration from Wilson, and almost every page of the book features animations, galleries, movies and other content to enrich the experience.

Speaking to reporters after the presentation, McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw described the effort to bring textbooks to the iPad as Steve Jobs’ vision. McGraw wistfully wished that Jobs was still here to see it, when talking to AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka.

E.O. Wilson was less esoteric. As I was wrapping up, Wilson approached Schiller and shook his hand. “Thank you for this miracle,” Wilson told Schiller. “This makes me wish I could start over again.”